“Such is the case wherever they go.”: The lawless situation in the wake of Sherman’s march

Colonel George G. Dibrell commanded a brigade of cavalry in Brigadier-General William Humes’ Division, Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s Cavalry.  Humes’ command had faced some of the initial Federal movements in the South Carolina march.  For much of February 1865, Dibrell’s men dogged the Federal columns.  But like much of Wheeler’s force, they were scattered too thin to impede Major-General William T. Sherman’s advances.   February 26, 1865 found Dibrell just south of Gladden’s Grove, at Wateree Creek, caught up like others with the rains and floods. So like a good officer will, he reported his status to higher headquarters:

We wrote you yesterday by a scouting party from the Eighth Confederate that the enemy had all crossed the river and that we would move down toward Peay’s Ferry and Camden and try to cross, and sent out scouts night before last to ascertain the condition of things, when they found every boat destroyed and no means of crossing the river. Wateree Creek was past fording, and we moved up it and got upon this road and are moving this morning to Landsford and will cross the Catawba first chance.

In perspective to Federal dispositions that day, Dibrell was about ten miles west of the Fourteenth Corps position at Rocky Mount Ferry.   Though, based on details offered by Dibrell, the Confederates were not appreciative of the Fourteenth Corps problems crossing the Catawba River.  Though Dibrell did know the Right Wing had crossed at Peay’s Ferry. But Dibrell was stuck just like the Federals to his front, and unable to pursue.  He was, however, looking for a crossing further upstream on the Catawba.

Dibrell went on to describe the state of his command and opportunities – both missed and contemplated:

Our men ran out of rations yesterday and every mill on this side has been burned by the enemy, consequently we will move as rapidly as possible until we can get out of this section and to where we can get rations, and will overtake you as soon as possible. If we had been one day sooner could have got 100 stragglers. It would be of great service to people to have a force in the rear all the while to prevent these stragglers committing so many depredations. If we can cross at Landsford will do so; aim to reach that vicinity to-night, and would be glad to receive orders as to what to do there. Unless otherwise ordered shall move up to the command, unless I can see an opportunity of accomplishing something in the rear.

Dibrell described the Federal activity on the march:

The enemy have large droves of cattle and very large wagon trains, all guarded by infantry. Sometimes large guards and at others small. Negroes report they hung eighteen Confederate soldiers in retaliation for killing theirs, but I can’t find out certainly. They say it was done between Wateree Meeting-House and Rocky Mount. I have sent a scout down this side the creek to learn certainly.

We see here the “rumor mill” at work during war.  The forager murders and threatened reprisals, which were a topic being discussed at the highest levels, left fertile ground for all sorts of stories.

But what I find most informative is Dibrell’s description of the wake of Sherman’s march through Fairfield County:

They burned a great many houses through the country, robbed every one, have caused negroes to take everything they wanted out of houses, and defied the owners to molest them. We yesterday saw a Mrs. Mobly (whose husband is in Second South Carolina Cavalry), an intelligent lady, living in a negro cabin, and her negroes in possession of her clothing, bedding, bacon, &c. I sent a detail and had it all gathered up and returned and her moved to another house. Such is the case wherever they go. A small party could accomplish much for citizens in regulating negroes. I am more than willing to bring up the rear if I can so arrange it as to feed the men, and hope not to be bothered by high waters again. It has rained incessantly and every creek is overflown. The Yankees cleaned out every horse, mule, and cow in their line. Their infantry treat citizens much worse than cavalry. All express the greatest horror at the idea of falling into the hands of Wheeler’s cavalry.

What Dibrell brings light to, and which is corroborated by civilian reports written during the war, is the stripping away of law enforcement as the Federals moved through.  Let me make sure this is phrased so the point is made – as the Federal columns moved through, the local officials – police, sheriffs, constables, judges, and such –  were noticeably absent from many communities.  While the Federals were in an area, there was some enforcement by military authorities.    But that was usually focused on military-to-civil affairs. If the provost marshal was not handy, the soldiers were ill-equipped or motivated to deal with civilian-to-civilian matters of law and order.

Keep in mind, with the very arrival of the Federal columns, something dramatic changed with respect to just WHO was a civilian.  Emancipation marched forward with the men in blue coats.  Thus creating a very interesting – to say the least – situation in regard to… for instance … property rights.  Consider well the word choice offered by Dibrell here: “[The Yankees] have caused the negroes to take everything they wanted out of houses….”

But, there’s another layer to this problem.  Many of these communities had long been heavily “policed.”  With large numbers of slaves held in bondage, enforcement of rules was vital to the society.  War exacerbated that condition – fewer able-bodied men at home, competition for resources, more threats to civilian well-being, and other encounters (say like escaped prisoners or deserters) brought in directly by the war.  As the war neared, in January 1865, call-ups of militia further depleted manpower and reduced law enforcement forces. Many parts of South Carolina were already, for all practical purposes, police-states.   And some sectors had only military authorities as a practical law enforcement force.  The arrival of the Federals pealed away what was left (as I mentioned was the case with Columbia).  After that there was nothing in place, save some passing troops like Dibrell’s, to restore any semblance of order.  In time, officials returned and some order restored.  But even then, the restoration was not evenly or completely accomplished for many months.

And again, the fine point I’m calling out here is not so much “just enforcement” but simply having “any enforcement” of law and order…. the former would lead us into a discussion of Reconstruction and stuff of the post-war decades.

When we consider the state of South Carolina in April 1865, we must recognize the forces which contributed to the destruction and desolation.  The Federals, the Confederates, and even the South Carolinians themselves all had a hand in creating the rubble.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 1283.)

Sherman’s March, February 26, 1865: “I cannot cross this stream…until the water subsides”

Since the start of the march into South Carolina in February 1865, Confederate leaders from Augusta to Richmond had cast plans which depended upon some delay imposed upon Major-General William T. Sherman’s advance.  Through most of February, the Federals maneuvered around and through military obstacles thrown in their way.  And the Confederate forces moved slowly, at times clumsily, towards a concentration.  But at the close of February, nature imposed a four day delay on Sherman’s march.  February 26, 1865 started with more saturating rains and rising flood waters.


At Rocky Mount Ferry, the Fourteenth Corps remained isolated on the west side of the Catawba River.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis countermanded the the attempt and everyone waited for the river to fall.  That morning, Davis reported to Major-General Henry Slocum, Left Wing commander:

Misfortunes never come single. The work of crossing the trains was continued last night until about 12.30 o’clock, when the bridge gave way in the center. All the boats but two have been recovered. The balking and planking were lost. The river is still rising, and it is doubtful if the anchors will hold the boats in their places against the heavy current. Material to reconstruct the bridge is being gathered from houses, and an attempt to relay it will be made as soon as possible.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, in charge of the pontoons, attempted to build another bridge that day in the face of a raging flood.  “… we took out the remainder of the pontoons and made hasty preparations to span the river some 500 yards below.” But Davis countermanded the the attempt and everyone waited for the river to fall.

On the east side of the river, the Cavalry Division remained in camp around Lancaster that day.  Aside from the flag of truce to pass messages between Sherman and Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, little transpired.  Although, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick did send a somewhat absent-minded note to Davis back at the river crossing, warning,  “The roads are very bad, and the streams much swollen.  Please inform me where you will encamp to-night, that I may protect your left flank.”  No doubt Davis spent some foul words contemplating a response.

Having been the object of Kilpatrick’s accusations two days before, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams defended the Twentieth Corps from those charges in a response written on the 26th.  In brief, Williams explained his provost-marshal had disciplined come cavalrymen for vandalizing a home.  Furthermore, any confusion about the right of way at the bridge on the 23rd was due to the cavalry wagons that Williams was entrusted with.  Nor had Williams intentionally destroyed horse fodder.   Williams brought his defense to a point:

General Kilpatrick speaks of his ability to “retaliate,” as though I had sent out men to harass his column, or had personally endeavored to affront him in some way. It would be puerile in me to disavow any such intention, and I really must protest against being held responsible for the conduct of bummers and stragglers.

Williams then closed, reminding that the Twentieth Corps was trusted with the safety of Kilpatrick’s 250 wagons, somewhat a trump card in the event “retaliations” would play out.  Sherman simply passed the message along, “There is no need of rejoinder.”

On serious matters, Williams was able to move the Twentieth Corps to Hanging Rock that day, over the roads corduroyed the day before.  Major-General John Geary provided another vivid entry for the day:

February 26, my division in the center marched at 7 a.m., following the Third Division, and having in my charge the trains of that division and my own. For three miles, to Russell Hill, we moved on the road taken yesterday by the Seventeenth Corps. At that point we diverged to the left, and at 1.30 p.m. reached Hanging Rock Post-Office, where we encamped. The weather to-day was warm and clear. Two-thirds of the road had to be corduroyed for our trains. In most places fence rails were abundant, and were quickly brought into requisition. The surface of the country since leaving Catawba River is crust with quicksand underneath. Wagons and animals everywhere except on the corduroy broke through the crust to the depth of three feet or more. Hanging Rock Post Office is near a creek of the same name. Near the ford where the main road crosses is a large projecting rock on the hill-side overhanging the stream, and giving it its designation. The place is noted as the scene of one of the minor conflicts of the Revolution, with which this State abounded in the days of Marion, Sumter, Cornwallis, and Tarleton; distance to-day, nine miles.


Geary, as was most of Sherman’s force, was finding the very ground of South Carolina more difficult than the enemy.

The Right Wing did make progress on the 26th.  The goal was to cross Lynches River that day.  Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps started in the morning with Fourth Division over Lynches Creek, and the remainder of the corps on the west side of that body of water.  With the rise of the creek overnight, Fourth Division had to take the lead again while the rest of the corps struggled over the creek.  Lead elements of the corps found Young’s Bridge over Lynches River intact (Confederate cavalry had used it earlier in the day).  However, as Blair reported:

Here, however, we found the road [and] bottom lands adjoining overflowed for a considerable distance on each side, the water being from two to six feet in depth for a distance of about 200 yards on west and 1,500 yards on east side. One regiment of Fourth Division waded along the road and through the swamp to the high ground beyond, where they intrenched a strong position for the purpose of covering the crossing.

With a small force over the river, Blair set his engineers to work building a foot-bridge to support them as needed.  All hopes were the river would fall during the night.

Major-General John Logan had the Fifteenth Corps split onto two axis of advance.  The Fourth and First Divisions moved against Tiler’s Bridge.  The Second and Third moved to Kelly’s Bridge.  A mounted column had secured these bridges the day before.  So orders that day called for the corps to reach Black Creek beyond.  But, again, the rains and mud upset the plans.  Logan described the situation his men encountered at Lynches River:

The rains of the previous week had so swollen this stream that, although the bridge remained, the water on each side was deep enough to swim a horse, and presented in its then condition an almost insurmountable obstacle to the crossing of our trains.

On his copy of the orders for the day, Logan wrote:

It is impossible to comply with this order…. If that is desirable I can swim my men and animals and cross with a destruction of ammunition and supplies. It is an easy matter to put an order on paper that cannot be obeyed, and then place the responsibility on those who fail to comply. I only have to say that I cannot cross this stream with my command under all the circumstances until the water subsides, and hereby protest against the order as being impossible to be obeyed.

However, the Fifteenth Corps did manage to get some troops across Lynches River that day.  At Tiller’s Bridge, Major-General John Corse had troops wade and swim to the far shore:

In order to secure the bridge and occupy the position designated in orders from corps headquarters, I succeeded in crossing one brigade of infantry and my battery, although the men were compelled to wade in the water to their waists, making a lodgment on the opposite bank at 12 m. Prior to the crossing of this force the foraging details from my own command, and others of the corps, had encountered the enemy’s cavalry and been driven in toward Tiiler’s Bridge, but were checked by the appearance of my infantry and the addition of a few mounted men of the Seventh Illinois Veteran Volunteers and orderlies attached to these headquarters.

Corse described “promiscuous skirmishing” with what turned out to be Major-General Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry.  Corse managed to cross all but a handful of companies from his division, but had to leave his trains behind for the moment.  He also singled out one soldier in particular:

In the skirmishing which took place I am pleased to mention the name of Corpl. Elijah G. Davis, Company I, Eighty-first Ohio Volunteers, with forage detail, who distinguished himself by refusing to surrender when attacked by four rebels, and fought hand to hand with them until he received seven wounds, and finally escaped death on the spot by the assistance of a comrade. His wounds, it is thought, will not prove fatal, and consist mainly of saber cuts.

Elijah G. Davis would indeed survive those wounds. Later moving to Colorado, he died in 1915.

At Kelly’s Bridge, further downstream, Major-General William Hazen reported getting two brigades and a battery over the river.  But as the case at Tiller’s Bridge, Hazen left his trains behind and started building foot-bridges over the river while waiting for the flood waters to ease.

One other column pushed out from the Right Wing that day.  Having word of Charleston’s fall, Major-General Oliver O. Howard dispatched Captain William Duncan and Lieutenant John McQueen, escorted by sixty mounted troops, with a message for the Federal commander in Charleston.  Duncan departed Federal lines late that evening.  They crossed Lynches River the next morning. But this force soon ran into a detachment of the 5th South Carolina Cavalry.  Though able to push aside the Confederates, Duncan was concerned after encountering such a large force, so he fell back.  So no updates from Sherman’s force would go out that day.  In the action Colonel Hugh K. Aiken, commanding a brigade in Butler’s division, was mortally wounded.

The skirmishing was slight on February 26th.  Instead what resisted and delayed the Federals most, and what was granting the Confederates a much desired time to concentrate, was the weather.  Perhaps a small consolation for the soldiers – at least it was not snow and ice.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 99, pages 380, 427, ; Part II, Serial 99, pages 583, 586, 589, 591, and 1288.)

Sherman’s March, February 25, 1865: “a broad, turbulent, and rising river, road without bottom, raining almost constantly”

During the last week of February 1865, the forces marching with Major-General William T. Sherman passed through the area between the Piedmont and Sandhills landform regions.  This was somewhat the reverse of the passage made only ten days earlier – from Sandhills to Piedmont – before reaching Columbia.

Parts of the Left Wing and the Cavalry Division were, on February 25, 1865, entering the area known as the Waxhaws.  Of course South Carolina being steeped in Revolutionary War history, many of the place names encountered along the march corresponded with actions from the previous century (such as Camden).  Perhaps just a quirk of fate, but as the march brought the combatants near the site of the Waxhaws Massacre, the topic of executing prisoners was at the fore of discussions.

Perhaps General Horatio Gates was able to complete passage across sixty miles of this terrain on August 16, 1780, during his flight from Camden. But on February 25, 1865, no-one was going anywhere quickly.  The rains made every stream a river and every road a quagmire.  Not only did Sherman’s march slow to a crawl, but the pursuit of Sherman’s forces likewise paused.  Brigadier-General William Allen’s cavalry, seeking to join with Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, who’d withdrawn to the area of Fort Mill, was stuck at Fishing Creek that day, far behind the Federal rear guard.  Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s column from the Army of Tennessee was still near Newberry, due to bad roads, lack of bridges, and general confusion.  The Confederates would miss an opportunity to isolate and possibly destroy a corps.


That corps was Major-General Jefferson C. Davis’ Fourteenth Corps.  Still attempting to cross the Catawba at Rocky Mount Ferry, the swollen river stood in their way.  Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, commanding the Left Wing’s pontoon trains, wrote:

 February 25, river still rising and the current becoming so rapid that I had to place heavy timbers on the lower end of the boats to prevent them from sinking or filling with water. During the 25th about two-thirds of the train of the [Fourteenth] Army Corps crossed and stopped at dark on account of the hill on the opposite bank. It commenced raining at 7 p.m., and I accordingly sent word to the quartermaster in charge of the remainder of the train that had not crossed that he had better cross it immediately; and consequently the teams were soon ready at the bridge, but made slow speed. At 12 p.m. the same night some 400 feet, midway the span, broke loose and washed violently away.

Those wagons that were across found the ascent up the bank nearly impossible.  The Second Division of the corps reported, “Three miles of corduroy road made by the division,” on that day.  Brigadier-General James Morgan, of the Second Division, summarized the difficulties of February 24th to 27th, “At this point was met the greatest detention and difficulties encountered during the campaign – a broad, turbulent, and rising river, road without bottom, raining almost constantly.”   Against this, the Fourteenth Corps made no progress on the map that day.

Considering the difficulty crossing the Catawba, Sherman prodded Left Wing Commander, Major-General Henry Slocum, that,

It is plain that we must reduce our trains. If you will order General Davis to burn his trains beyond the river and double his teams I can make up 100 or 200 wagons out of the headquarters trains and from Howard when we meet at Cheraw.  He could discriminate as to contents, giving the preference to those containing salt, sugar, coffee, and bread.  Of course the pontoon train must be carried along.

Slocum passed the suggestion on to Davis.  What I find remarkable is the number of wagons for this “light column” and that Sherman assessed he had ample replacements.  Again, the logistical arrangements of this march are an under-appreciated facet.

Further down the road, for the Twentieth Corps, it was the “road without bottom” that resisted movement.  Remaining in camps for the day, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams sent out detachments to repair and corduroy the roads in a “Cold; heavy rain….”

To the north of the Left Wing, the Cavalry Division moved into Lancaster.  Although briefly skirmishing with a Confederate detachment, the town fell without incident.  The important detail that day was holding a flag of truce to relay Sherman’s message to Hampton.  The Federal cavalry would stay a few days in Lancaster.

The Right Wing was able to move on the 25th, but with great difficulty.  The Seventeenth Corps took a direct road to Hough’s Bridge over Little Lynch’s Creek (today just Lynches Creek).  Major-General Frank Blair reported,

The advance division (Fourth) crossed and encamped about two miles east of the creek, the First Division on the west side of the creek, and the Third Division at Copeland’s.  While the Fourth Division was crossing the water rose very rapidly, rendering it impossible to cross the First Division before daylight.  During the night the First Michigan Engineers built a bridge about 250 yards in length across the creek.

Let me pause here to say that my depiction of the Seventeenth Corps’ movements for this day on the map above is a less than authoritative than I strive for. I have found no maps that match all the road network and placenames mentioned by Blair.  So the line is rather general, based on a consolidation of map sources.  If anyone can clarify the particulars of the route, I’ll be happy to give you a post!

The Fifteenth Corps closed up their columns near Pine Tree Church.  Brigadier-General William Hazen’s Division covered McCaskill’s Crossroads, enabling direct communication between all divisions.  Hazen also detached a brigade to follow the 29th Missouri Mounted Infantry in a dash towards the bridges on Lynches River (again, Lynch’s in the wartime dispatches).  Major Charles Burkhardt of the 29th reported around mid-day:

… I broke camp at daybreak this a.m. and marched to [Tiller’s Bridge], at which I arrived at 9 a.m., meeting up with no opposition and finding the bridge safe.  We captured 10 guns, 7 kegs of powder, and 20 prisoners.  There is another bridge four miles below.  The road is good to both bridges on this side.  On the opposite side the roads are swampy for about a quarter of a mile. I have picketed the road at both bridges and await orders.  My vedettes have just brought in a company of State militia, seventeen strong.

Using rapid mounted forces to infiltrate the road network, the Fifteenth Corps had secured another bridgehead over another important river in South Carolina.  This, you see, is what “shock troops” do.  However, that bridgehead was a fleeting hold.  It was not the Confederates who would cause issues the next day, but rather “a broad, turbulent, and rising river” again.  The two points were Tiller’s and Kelly’s Bridges.  And please note the base map used above has incorrectly labeled those. Tiller’s is the bridge immediately downstream from the mouth of Little Lynches Creek.  Kelly’s is downstream from there.

Major-General Oliver O. Howard reported that day he’d used the crossing of the Wateree to reduce his column somewhat.  “At the last crossing about 2,000 horses and mules were taken from men not authorized to use them. The unserviceable were killed. The artillery and mounted men and pontoon trains were refitted.”  In addition, Howard would issue a circular to his command in regard to the forager security:

The general believes that it is the enemy’s intention to kill our foragers after capture. Two were found murdered the other day and labeled “Death to foragers.” Two were killed this morning near General John E. Smith’s camp. General Sherman’s directions with regard to retaliation will be strictly carried out by corps and division commanders; yet it is enjoined again upon all officers to prohibit individual foraging.

Howard instructed that all parties would henceforth be strong enough to resist attacks by Confederate cavalry patrols.  Reinforcing earlier orders, each brigade would have an officer in command of foragers, with his name registered with Howard’s headquarters. This was a “positive” control measure by which the command could quickly determine the status of foraging parties. But with this circular came the instructions that retaliations were authorized and would be carried out.  The box was open and there would be consequences to this circular.

Incidentally, Howard assigned his signal officer, Captain P.A. Taylor, the forager duties for headquarters, Army of the Tennessee.   The signal officers always seem to get the additional duties – then and now.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 426, 483, 491, and 688; Part II, Serial 99, pages 565, 566, 571, and 572.)